The HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council has announced the first cohort of honorees for the inaugural Peter J. Gomes STB '68 Memorial Honors, which celebrates the outstanding contributions that HDS alumni make to their fields, and to society, across the broad spectrum of professions and vocations that HDS graduates pursue.
The council honors four distinguished alumni in the inaugural cohort: Reza Aslan, MTS '99, Susanna Heschel, MTS '76, the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi, MTS '03, and Sarah Sentilles, MDiv '01, ThD '08. The council also extends posthumous honors on behalf of the alumni community to Ronald F. Thiemann, who passed away in November 2012, for his extended service and extraordinary contributions to the School.
"As a council, we are implementing a signature way to celebrate the exceptionality of our alumni—both individuals of distinction and, by extension, the inspiring HDS spirit shared by our whole community," Alumni/Alumnae Council chairperson Samuel Nixon, Jr., MDiv '91, said of the new program. "We have done this in creating the Gomes Honors, and these first recipients are exemplary of the initial outcome."
Sabrina Knox Cleary, ALB '92, MTS '97, a member of the council who chaired the honors committee, added, "Peter Gomes offered a brilliant example of an HDS alumnus who lived out his very public vocation with genius, courage, and service to others. By recognizing alumni who have shown a similar kind of genius through their work in any field, we hope to create a lasting tribute to Professor Gomes and to the mission and values of HDS."
Reza Aslan, an internationally acclaimed author, activist, scholar of religions, and expert on the Middle East, is the founder of AslanMedia.com, Associate Professor of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside, and cofounder and chief creative officer of BoomGen Studios.
"I am absolutely humbled by this honor," Aslan said upon learning of his selection.
His books include No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam (2005) and How to Win a Cosmic War: God, Globalization, and the End of the War on Terror (2009). He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, the board of the Ploughshares Fund, the board of Abraham's Vision, and others.
Susanna Heschel is the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, where she has convened a series of five international conferences of scholars in the fields of Jewish studies and Islamic studies.
Her research focuses on Jewish-Christian relations in Germany during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the history of biblical scholarship, and the history of anti-Semitism. She has served as visiting professor at the universities of Cape Town, Frankfurt, and Edinburgh and at Princeton University, and she is the recipient of numerous grants and four honorary doctorates.
Her books include Abraham Geiger and the Jewish Jesus (1998) and The Aryan Jesus: Christian Theologians and the Bible in Nazi Germany (2010). She spent 2012 as a fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin and is writing a book on the history of Jewish scholarship on Islam.
"I am deeply moved to receive this honor," Heschel remarked. "Both because it comes in the name of Peter Gomes, someone I have admired enormously for many, many years, and because my years at Harvard Divinity School were the most important years of my academic life. I am grateful for the extraordinary faculty for preparing their lectures and seminars with great care, and for my fellow students for the stimulating conversations we had in class and also informally. I am deeply enriched as a scholar and as a Jew by my years at HDS."
The Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi was born into a Hindu Brahmin family in Vaishali, India. At the age of 10 he entered a Buddhist monastery in Rajgir, near the ancient Nalanda University. He was ordained by His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and he now leads the Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a nonpartisan collaborative think tank focused on interdisciplinary research and programs related to the development of human and global ethics. He also serves as the Buddhist chaplain at MIT.
He is the founding director and president of the Prajnopaya Institute and Foundation, a worldwide humanitarian organization that provides care for all regardless of ethnicity, religion, or gender, by developing innovative health, education, and social welfare programs. He lectures internationally on subjects ranging from philosophy, science, ethics, and religion to sociopolitical thought, and he teaches traditional Buddhist philosophy and practice through the Prajnopaya Institute.
Priyadarshi offered words of gratitude for the award. "I thank the HDS Alumni/Alumnae Council for thinking of me for the Gomes Memorial Honors. It is truly an honor, and I feel humbled to receive such recognition. I accept it as an encouragement to further continue the work that I began with the support of many virtuous friends."
Sarah Sentilles is a scholar of religion, critical theorist, and the author of three books: Taught by America: A Story of Struggle and Hope in Compton (2006), A Church of Her Own: What Happens When a Woman Takes the Pulpit (2009), and her recent memoir, Breaking Up with God: A Love Story (2011).
As a graduate student at Harvard, she directed a community art center and was the managing editor of the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. She wrote her dissertation on the photographs taken at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. In 2010, she was awarded a grant from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard to co-lead with HDS professor Karen King an exploratory seminar that brought together scholars investigating the intersection of Christianity and torture.
"I was surprised and thrilled to learn that I had been selected as a Gomes Honors recipient," Sentilles said of the honor.
At the core of her scholarship, writing, and activism is a commitment to investigating the roles that language, images, and practices play in oppression, violence, social transformation, and justice movements. She teaches at the Pacific Northwest College of Art, and she is currently at work on a novel about a veteran back from Iraq, a conscientious objector during World War II, and an art professor.
In addition to the four alumni, the council has extended posthumous honors to a longtime member of the HDS faculty and former Dean Ronald F. Thiemann, who passed away on November 29, 2012. A noted scholar, theologian, teacher, and administrator, Thiemann was a leading voice in discussions about contemporary theology and the role of religion in American public life.
The Gomes Honors recipients will be honored in a ceremony in Andover Chapel at HDS on April 4, 2013, at noon, after which they will form a panel of speakers for a third and final installment of the year's Divinity Dialogues: Conversations with the Alumni/Alumnae Community series.
This distinguished alumni speaker series was also instituted by the council this year, and featured Gloria White-Hammond, MDiv '97, and John Wilson, MTS '81, EdM '82, EdD '85, as the year's first speakers.